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Who will be the next Patagonia? It just might be Sealand

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By: Bill Hanifin, CLMP™ |

Posted on January 25, 2023

South African based lifestyle brand markets responsibly made gear and apparel

Sealand is a South African-based lifestyle brand focused on responsibly made gear and apparel. Its mission is to ensure that every decision made keeps the planet and its people front and center. The Sealand journey began in 2015. The founders were two surfers, a dog and a Cruiser. The group trekked around the country of South Africa together in search of the best waves and a dream. Fast forward to 2023 and the dream has evolved into a vibrant group of professionals who are building global brand recognition for their sustainably created products.

All Sealand bags and apparel are handmade by valued craftspeople from waste or responsibly and ethically sourced materials. These materials are then combined with high-quality hardware, conscious design, and expert craftsmanship to create gear intended to last a lifetime. The upcycled and responsibly sourced materials used are sturdy and weather resistant, speaking to the souls of those who wear them on the outdoor adventure of their choice, or simply a morning commute.

I had the distinct pleasure of being introduced to Adrian Hewlett, CEO Sealand by Wise Marketer colleague Deon Olivier, founder Woodstock Loyalty. After wrapping up the first African Loyalty Academy workshop recently, Deon guided me into a Sealand store in Stellenbosch on a sunny afternoon. The quality and appeal of the products in the store resulted in a few purchases, but also a yearning to learn more about the brand.

That curiosity led to this conversation, where I learned about Adrian’s evolution through business to his current leadership of Sealand. We explored the challenges and complexities of manufacturing a sustainable line of clothing and gear and gained insight into the perspectives that this adventurous executive applies as he grows a global brand.

Adrian grew up in Zambia and Mozambique and is a fluent speaker of French and Portuguese. A serial entrepreneur, he brings years of experience, dedication, and acute organizational skills to elevate the brand and the operations that uphold it. On top of this, Adrian is an adventurer, endurance runner, and the true epitome of the Sealand lifestyle.

Wise Marketer (WM): You have quite a history in South African marketing. Can you share a bit of your background?

Adrian Hewlett (AH): My background is in the media and marketing world. In the mid-2000’s, I launched a Digital Media sales house whose first client was Microsoft MSN. This was early days in digital media and we played a big role in launching the commercial assets of Microsoft, including Facebook and LinkedIn. We served as their sales team and did media sales for the Financial Mail, Daily Maverik and others.

As part of the business evolution, we launched a creative studio which made banner ads and other assets that met the needs of online media buyers. Eventually I sold the media sales business and started Machine, a digital agency that included a focus on consumer incentives and rewards. That business grew and was eventually sold to Publicis Groupe in 2014.  I stayed on in a leadership role until 2017.

WM: What led you to Sealand?

AH: I originally came across the brand in 2016. I liked it immediately as it matched up with my passion for the outdoors, a love of the ocean, and caring for the planet. I noticed the quality of the products offered, liked their story and became closer to the brand over time. Once I had left Publicis, I was searching for my next path in business.

I literally made a cold call to the owners and sat down with the “two surfers”, Jasper and Mike to explore the opportunity. Mike Schlebach is a well-known big wave surfer and shared a vision with Jasper for the Sealand products. I believed I could help with the strategic and commercial approach and I invested in 2018 to become an active part of the business.

A key point that attracted me to Sealand was – and is to this day - the authenticity of the brand message. Not only was the message projected outwardly to the market, but it is also an accurate reflection of what was happening on the inside. The owners had a commitment to quality and sustainability and had created a culture with employees consistent with their vision.

WM: What came next?

AH: It turned out that we had a lot to learn. I didn’t realize how different manufacturing was from agency work. As an entrepreneur with two successful exits in my career, I thought I could master this new world, but it presented many opportunities to learn.

Of course, then came COVID. We were faced with challenges that impacted all retailers and we had tough decisions to make. As the eternal optimist, I thought the pandemic might last four months, but it became two years as we know. Though we all have a strong relationship, Mike left the business at that time and I had to make some tough decisions.

WM: How did the pandemic play out for you?

AH: About twelve months ago, a light bulb popped on. At that time, Sealand revenue came from multiple channels. We had our own physical stores, a growing e-commerce business, some wholesale in South Africa and corporate sales. The biggest sales channel was wholesale business to retailers in the UK and US, where we sold to Selfridges, Nordstrom, Liberty of London, Mr. Porter, Bloomingdales, and others. While that channel helped build brand awareness, cash flow and margins suffered.  Global shipping costs increased dramatically throughout the pandemic. I knew I had to reimagine the business.

The bold move we made was to eliminate the international wholesale channel. We took a big risk, chopping off almost 45 percent of forecasted revenue. The transition was surprisingly smooth, and I attribute that to our transparency in communicating the reasons for this new approach to our wholesale partners.  We explained our reasoning and they understood.

WM: What did you do next?

AH: We adopted a tight focus on our own channels, reinvested in the customer experience, both in physical stores and online. We invested in e-commerce, our user journeys and made sure we were connecting with the right customers.  We put all of our brand-building power into one area of the business, and it worked.

Retail growth was 130 percent month over month during 2022 and the revenue produced higher margins. We are profitable now and the prospects for the coming year are good. Our brand scores and customer satisfaction indicators are all increasing.

WM: Can you describe your brand essence?

AH: We all revolve around a love for the ocean and there’s a nautical feel to the brand. It’s at once representative of the outdoors, the ocean, the freedom of an adventure outside while appealing to a broad range of consumers. People who want a cool bag with lots of utility and want to do something for the world relate to the brand. The brand speaks to these values which is one reason we don’t advocate a discounting culture at Sealand.

WM: What’s your channel strategy now, physical stores, ecommerce or both?

AH: Our first physical store was launched in the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. That one got lots of attention and it actually led to the wholesale business I mentioned earlier. Now we have 4 physical stores and will be opening the fifth in Johannesburg soon. Two more are planned for the duration of 2023.

The e-commerce business is up 200%, so we will continue to invest in this channel. And here’s something for you, we didn’t run any special promotions on Black Friday this past year as the strategy runs contrary to our brand. Despite that, we saw 100 percent growth in sales from the previous year.

WM: Let’s talk about sustainability. I read on your website that all Sealand bags and apparel are handmade from waste or responsibly and ethically sourced materials. How does this work?

AH: We source raw materials for our products from several sources and it is a complex process. Our approach is leverage “Upcycling”, the process of using existing materials that have not yet been recycled. We have several sources. First are the canvas sails. It’s highly durable and it’s available to us as it is “B grade” material rejected by the factory for reasons important to sailors but making the product perfect for what we do.

We also use a product called ECONYL® regenerated nylon can be understood as waste that is otherwise polluting the Earth (such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and industrial plastic), which is rescued, sorted, and then cleaned to recover the nylon within this waste. Through a radical regeneration and purification process, the nylon waste is brought back to its original form. The ECONYL® regenerated nylon is then processed into yarns and polymers for use in varying industries and products.

WM: I noticed the unique lining of your bags. Is that sourced sustainably as well?

AH: I’m glad you noticed that. The lining of our bags is unique. We use a product called Polytwill which is used commonly for big in-store displays at retails you would know including Mr. Price, and Woolworths,.  This material decorates the interior of the stores and is replaced quarterly. There is no real secondary purpose for the material and it’s a perfect lining for our bags. Customers like it because every bag is different. with vibrant colours and imagery lining each of our bags.

WM: What logistics are involved in sourcing sustainable material and how do you measure its impact on the planet?

AH: Our bags are carbon neutral. Sealand bags have a carbon footprint of .9 kilos while a competitively comparable bag might use as much as 10KG carbon. We supplement our residual with carbon credits generated via recycling projects in Hout Bay. Our entire business will be carbon neutral in the next year.

We use about 35 tons of Poly twill per year. One big retailer we know uses 15 tons per year, all of which went into the landfill in the past. The waste is enormous.

The cost and logistics of using eco-friendly materials is daunting. Econyl is triple the price of regular materials. We have to factor that into our model. Fortunately, we don’t have to pay for the Poly twill itself. We have an agreement for the material disposed of by some retailers to be delivered to our facility rather than a dump location. If we hadn’t worked out these issues and had the cooperation of the retailer’s logistics business, we would be facing much higher costs.

WM: What else do we need to know about Sealand?

AH: The most important thing for people to know about Sealand is that we are a completely honest company that is trying to make the planet a better place. Simon Sinek advocates that you must have a “why” and ours is together we make the planet better.

We can’t lie ever, if you can’t put it up on a billboard, then you can’t do it. I think that’s the psychology around the business. It makes life a lot easier. Just keep completely honest about everything you do.